“Organizing your research,” HGSA Academic Workshop Notes

Below are my notes from a UNL History Graduate Students’ Association workshop I attended yesterday afternoon. The workshop, on tactics for organizing your research, included a detailed introduction to the research tool Zotero as well as a discussion of the ways Google Drive can be used to organize source material and facilitate a more seamless writing regimen.

“Organizing Your Research”

HGSA Academic Workshop, 18 January 2013

Leslie Working:

  • Zotero = quickest way to collect and organize books, archival materials, articles
    • originally a Firefox plug-in, now for all major browsers
    • Zotero plug-in and stand-alone (downloadable – lets you access your library of collected materials even when you do not have access to the internet)
      • sync with the Zotero server (which is also one more place to save your work)
    • Zotero has excellent documentation and Help forums – someone will always get back to you when you ask a question
      • has an established community of people invested in improving the tool and helping you with tech issues
  •  quick intro to Zotero for first-time users:
    • icon on search bar to instantly save an item to Zotero: can save webpages, Google Scholar docs, JSTOR pdfs & citations, more
      • sometimes, for JSTOR, the icon does not appear (tech issue folks are working on this) – workaround = go into Zotero plug-in and manually save the pdf as a new item (then have to right-click manually to save the metadata for the item, to use later to generate citations for the item)
        • ALL the instructions for this are on JSTOR
      • same problem sometimes occurs in WorldCat & ProQuest
  • Zotero great for archives with no/spotty internet access –> still able to access your secondary source material for reference to help in your research work
  • allows you to search tags AND text (from notes you put in Zotero)

Regarding Organization & Zotero:

  • allows you to think about the organization of your work while you are interacting with it
    • recommends building a folder in Zotero for items of interest to read later (things that pique your interest but that you aren’t quite sure yet how they are relevant to your research)
  • can also create groups in Zotero to collaborate on work (e.g. bibliographies, class materials)
    • these can be as open or as closed as you like
    • Leslie is working in a Western Womens History group to produce bibliographies
    • thinks it would also be great for collaborating on comps – sharing notes, having conversations, support
  • can search for groups on Zotero.org
    • very easy for classes to use and contribute to as well
  • there is a plug-in for OpenOffice, MS Word that allows you to easily and quickly import citations from Zotero in a specified citation style of your choice
    • footnotes AND can ask Zotero to create a bibliography for you
    • formatting for this comes from the text editor you are using, NOT from Zotero (so if you find yourself having difficulty with formatting, check your default settings in your text editor)

Dr. Katrina Jagodinsky

  • didn’t know about Zotero when started her dissertation so used Google Docs (which is now Google Drive)
    • benefit of being able to use Zotero offline is a big plus
    • Google Drive also accepts pdfs
  • Jagodinsky puts footnote citations for both primary & secondary sources at the top of each and every document –> pulls the citation this way
    • makes footnote citation as opposed to bibliographic citation because that’s what she wants to be able to grab quickly when writing
    • makes her own notes
      • uses for transcription of archival material too
    • tags materials as well
  • carefully document every source you look at in archival visits EVEN if you are not going to cite it directly or use it –> put in notes reason you are NOT planning to use the document/source, specifically why it is not relevant

    • this way you can state clearly everything you’ve looked through
      • especially handy for writing research reports (summaries of research finds) after an archival visit –> shows you did the work (even if had fewer relevant sources than you thought going into it) and justifying your trip and the funding you received for it
  • write down whenever you read someone who agrees with your line of thinking –> way of later justifying your line of thinking and/or analytical leaps when writing
    • your notes should not just be about things you plan to quote
  • Jagodinsky researched for a full semester (in conjunction with conferencing)
    • writing pace = 5-6 hours per day, 6 weeks for each chapter
      • split her work days as 1/2 writing + 1/2 secondary reading (helps inspire you, keeps you in the terminology of your focus, break from tedium of writing) BUT be careful not to allow yourself to become distracted by your reading –> keep the focus on writing
      • 4 weeks: would have a chapter draft of about 20-25 pages
        • wrote with a hard copy of primary sources laid out chronologically for easy reference while drafting narrative
      • on footnotes: would search her Google documents for a given subject, pulls up a list, can run through these as writing to pull the footnotes and relevant quotes
        • having to dig through books slows down the writing process
        • Jagodinsky was casual with her footnotes in her first draft (to be able to move through the writing) –> used bad writing days to go back through and formalize these
        • everyone will experience writer’s block – you MUST have some things set aside to do on these days that will still keep your productivity up and you moving forward
          • read secondary sources
          • transcribe primary sources you haven’t gotten to yet
          • fix your footnotes
          • do some outlining
        • recommends against ever using “ibid” in footnotes until your final draft
      • keep the same writing schedule so you don’t need to even think about “what am I going to do today?” –> have an ingrained habit instead
        • do NOT work 7 days a week – get out of that chair!
    • after Jagodinsky had the 4 week draft, would take about a week off, do “prepping” (cleaning up grammar and other compositional loose ends)
      • week 6: working on the next chapter while advisor looks over the draft you sent in
      • week 7: revise returned chapter, working from your notes
      • week 8: return to working on your next chapter

‘Tis the season…for comprehensive exams

It seems the Spring of 2013 is the season of comprehensive exams for a core group of history grad students at UNL, including yours truly. I can’t recall another semester during my grad school stint that witnessed so many people I knew comping at once. But it’s a good thing. We comp buddies have to stick together. Because being a grad student is one thing, and being a comping grad student is another.

If you’re a grad student who hasn’t comped, you likely view the compers with a mixture of pity, curiosity, and nervous anticipation. If you’re a grad student who has comped, a.k.a. a comp mentor, you probably experience a little shiver of schadenfreude when you encounter a comper — just before you quell your internal naughtiness and offer some helpful advice of course. I’ve received plenty of helpful tips from comp mentors and comp buddies alike. Below is a summary of the primary methodologies I’ve developed for preparing for comps, as well as pdfs of my three comp lists. I hope this pays forward some of the help others have provided me (and explains what’s going on if I miss a post or two in the coming weeks).

Summary of methodology for my comp prep:

  • Take notes on every reading using the following categories as an outline: main arguments, aim/goal/purpose of the work, methodology and sources, historiography, major criticisms/praise of the work.
    • Keep these notes as specific and succinct as possible. Strive for a one-page maximum.
    • Save these notes as searchable text documents in OpenOffice, in Google Drive, and (perhaps most importantly) as tagged entries in Zotero.
      • Apply tags in Zotero carefully and deliberately from a pre-established list. Tags on my list range from the generic, such as “pedagogy” or “transnational,” to very specific tags for subject categories and time periods. Be brutally consistent and do NOT over-tag. If you’ve never used Zotero before, I highly recommend giving it a try. Whether you use it for comp preparation or for organizing and storing your research, it’s one of the best research tools out there and will save you oodles of time in the long run. If you are hesitant, watch one or two of the demonstration videos, download Zotero, and play around with it for a couple of days before letting yourself bail. Remember: don’t be afraid to explore and poke around. You won’t break it – I promise!
  • Clearly label every reading at the top of each page of notes, in bibliographical formatting.
  • Place all notes in carefully and deliberately arranged folders on a usb for OpenOffice text documents, on Google Drive, and Zotero. The point here is to promote not just organization, but searchability as well. Use your comp lists as guides to help delineate categories for folders and subfolders. Again, be brutally consistent.
  • Set a goal for a set number of readings per day and hold yourself to it. Do what you need to do to arrange your schedule and balance your life so that preparing for comps comes first.

My comp lists:

(You can see the way the UNL History Department breaks down the comprehensive fields here, under “Degree Requirements.”)

North American Comps List

Urban and Social Comps List

  • Compiled and brought to you courtesy of my friend and colleague, Brian Sarnacki.

Transnational 19th Century Comps List

  • Please note that this list is still undergoing some reorganization.